Lost in Iceland: Searching for a Better Writing Process

Nick Petrie, author of The Drifter, part of his Peter Ash series, shares his struggle with coming to terms with the writing process that works for him.
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Nick Petrie, author of The Drifter, part of his Peter Ash series, shares his struggle with coming to terms with the writing process that works for him.

writing process

I was in Keflavik airport, outside of Reykjavik, Iceland, waiting for a plane home after a backpacking trip, when something astonishing happened. For the first time in my life, out of nowhere, an entire unwritten book materialized in my head. Beginning, middle, and end.

So I did what any self-respecting novelist would do – I grabbed my little notebook and began scribbling furiously, hoping to capture the essence of the thing while I could. In twenty minutes, I managed ten tiny pages, a skeletal outline of an Icelandic adventure, before the book vanished into the fog from which it had appeared.

I write a crime series, and previously, my books had begun with little more than a situation – a large angry dog under a porch, a dump truck driven into a living room. As a writer, I explored each situation sentence by sentence, imagining my way forward into the story like a blindfolded spelunker feeling his way out of an uncharted cave. Which is to say, I explored many dead ends and bottomless pits, but each step was both exhilarating and terrifying. It was how I had always worked. I didn’t know any other way.

This writing process, despite award nominations and positive reviews, had always made me feel like a pretend writer. My MFA had a lot of emphasis on the ineffable, not the prosaic details of how to tell a story, let alone how writers actually worked.

I’d always thought that the real writers, the grown-ups, developed some kind of plan before they got down to the sentences. Grown-up writers didn’t rewrite chapters seventeen times, or pace the house scratching their heads for days, trying to figure out what happened next. Real writers knew what they were doing. I, on the other hand, was just a bullshit artist, winging it every day.

Perhaps this feeling was normal. I’d spent twenty-five years writing almost entirely on my own, in whatever hours I could steal from my business and my family. I’d written three books I couldn’t get published. When that third book got turned down amid the financial crisis, I decided I’d never see my work in print. So I might as well write something for myself.

Besides, becoming published seemed out of reach, so who cared how I worked? Outlining before writing was no fun at all, and for me, it never resulted in anything worth reading. My improvisational method, on the other hand, despite the hair-tearing aspect, was also a high-wire thrill.

I almost didn’t send The Drifter, which would become my first published book, to my long-lost agent. She sold it with a second book I hadn’t even begun to imagine. Somehow, with that same terror and exhilaration, I wrote that book, and two more after it. I even met my deadlines.

Amazing, right?

But I still felt like a pretend writer, making it up as I went along. Maybe because my previous work life, as a carpenter, then a remodeling contractor, then a freelance building inspector and consultant, was built around efficient systems and best-practice methodologies. Other writers, especially television and film writers, seemed to have story-making systems, with notecards and three-act structures, B-plots and C-plots. Where the hell was my system?

This miraculous Iceland book seemed like the chance, finally, to become a grown-up writer, to work from a plan instead of making it up on the fly.

Despite the fact that my notes were nearly illegible, I already knew the bones of the story. My protagonist’s search for a missing child would take him on a circular journey around Iceland’s Ring Road. By the end of the book, this wild place and its people would change him forever.

Piece of cake, right?

Maybe, I thought, I could even write a little faster this way.

Turns out I am more clueless than I ever imagined.

My book plan became a bottomless pit. I blew past my deadline like someone had cut my rescue rope. I’m from the Midwest, and Midwesterners take these kinds of obligations seriously. My publisher had paid me good money, and I owed them that book. Missing that deadline hurt.

I was so deep into that book I couldn’t find my way out. I thought I had a plan. I thought I knew the way. But I didn’t. I was afraid I’d never finish it. This was a problem. I’d already shuttered my business. I had no plan B.

It took me months to acknowledge this simple fact: I was lost in the dark without a light. And it saved me.

I abandoned my plan. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, reached out my hands, and began to work, sentence by sentence, feeling my way through the story, as I’d always done before. How about adding this bit here? Give it a try. How about changing that piece? Mmm, let’s see.

Yes, it’s uncertain, unwieldy, and inefficient, a crazy way to write a novel. But it’s also the way that works for me. And if I don’t fuck with that writing process, it works pretty well.

Is it possible that I’m a grown-up after all?

Good gravy, I hope not.

Where’s the fun in that?

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